The good news on Monday was that the Senate, in a show of broad bipartisan support, confirmed Norm Eisen to be the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Eisen had been in the post for the past year on a recess appointment, and by all accounts, Czech and American, had been doing an exemplary job protecting and advancing American interests and values in a country that is a critical ally to the United States and an important commercial and trading partner. Why the recess appointment? Because Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) decided well over a year ago that Eisen, while serving in the White House, had not been truthful to the Senator’s staff over his role in the dismissal of the inspector general of AmeriCorps. Never mind that a voluminous record showed that Eisen had not dissembled, that the entire board of AmeriCorps, left to right, Democrats and Republicans, supported the dismissal, and the actions were upheld in two federal courts. Grassley would not budge.
He finally did after an extensive negotiation with Eisen and a carefully written apology for possibly unintentionally misleading the staff, and Eisen got his day in the Senate and 70 votes for cloture. Grassley’s was not among them, and in fact, he gave an over-the-top peroration on the Senate floor against Eisen. But, of course, it was not enough to stop the confirmation via voice vote after the cloture motion passed.
Now step back and think about the implications of what I just wrote about the contemporary Senate. Grassley single-handedly held up this ambassadorial appointment, forcing a recess appointment for a year, then relented by dropping the hold. But it still took a cloture vote and 60 Senators to confirm him! A hold is in theory a simple thing: a written statement by a Senator that he or she will deny unanimous consent to move forward on a nomination or a bill, meaning that to overcome the hold, a leader will have to spend some time and eventually build supermajority support to overcome a threatened filibuster. Remove the hold, and in theory, the vote should be straightforward and simple, requiring a majority. But in today’s Senate, the removal of a hold does not mean the erasure of a supermajority requirement — it just means that a single Senator is giving up his superpower “right” to kill a career and keep a critical post vacant indefinitely.
The satisfaction from the show of bipartisanship on the Eisen confirmation lasted a good five minutes. Then came the next showdown, over the confirmation of Mari Carmen Aponte, also on a recess appointment expiring at the end of the month, to be the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. The ostensible reason to oppose her? Decades ago Aponte had a boyfriend who might have had ties to Fidel Castro’s government. Never mind that Senators had access to her FBI file — and that she has had a succession of top-secret clearances after exhaustive security checks. Aponte did not fare well — she fell 11 votes shy of the 60 needed once again to overcome cloture.
In a different world — i.e., the world the United States knew from 1789 until a few years ago — her 49-37 margin would have meant a comfortable confirmation. No more. Filibusters used to be rare events for bills, rarer for executive confirmations, rarer still for judicial nominations. Now they are more than routine; they are becoming the norm. Holds were not as rare, but the use of holds to block multiple nominees for not weeks or months but years or until death, were not typical; now they are the standard. Democrats were mischief-makers in the George W. Bush years; Republicans in the Barack Obama years have become recidivist hard-core offenders.
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